by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
My eight-year-old son is fond of this quote: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” He must have learned this at his special school program for smart kids. Maybe it resonates with him at some deep level because he was once an orphan – and many of the world’s great leaders were once orphans.
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, achieved greatness. Born, achieved, and thrust – he had all three paths to greatness. Today is just about my favorite “saint day” – John the Baptizer Day, June 24th, the exact opposite of Jesus’ birthday. I like this little irony the church cooked up: “let’s put John’s birthday six months before Jesus’ (which is true historically) but the irony of John’s Solemnity is how it makes John small. John’s got smallnicity. We should be thrust into smallnicity.
There’s a lot of talk about being like Jesus, but we should consider being like John. At least it has a bit more potential for success. After all, it is hard to become the most famous person in human history. But to become nothing – I can aspire to that. St. Therese d’ Lisieux aspired to this goal… “that I could achieve sainthood by becoming nothing, a grain of sand trampled underfoot.” Actually Therese thought Jesus was small, trampled underfoot by the world. True – crucified in the backwaters of the Roman Empire – a nobody who changed the world.
I guess I am thinking of John because he was even more so forgotten. And that’s the John Test for us: may Jesus increase and we decrease. May our day be 182.5 days away from Jesus’ glory. May we pass the test of smallnicity.
Some five years ago I decided to give away the majority of all the powerful and prestigious parts of pastoring to someone who did not earn or “deserve” such a powerful privilege, my new associate pastor. Don’t get me wrong, Garrett is a good preacher and all around nice guy with a sharper-than- most mind. But what founding pastor gives away all the best of what he worked for? I had been reading the contemplatives – Teresa of Avila, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton and even Eugene Peterson. I was hanging out with contemplative friends like Rev. Dr. Craig Babb. I was leaning hard into my monthly solitude (hermitage). I was beginning to hang around monks.
I entered into the grand John experiment: become less. I told Garrett he was in charge of resources. I told him he should be called “another pastor” instead of a lesser-than-me title. Since then I have struggled weekly to maintain a low profile. It isn’t easy. My entrepreneurial drive, my founder role, my visionary creative core have all been submerged into the great John test. I even have to refrain from thanking and praising the best premier staff a pastor could have. I know they think it is weird, but the moment I thank them and give out awards I grab back the authority and responsibility of their success. As it is, they do it all themselves and know it. Strange isn’t it, that thanking someone and evaluating someone steals their achievement? Thanking is a type of control. But control it is.
John gave up control. John ends up questioning Jesus’ agenda. “Are you the Expected One?” John ends up losing his head. John became nothing – except that he is famous for being ‘not famous.’
What if we pursued our faith in Christ quietly behind the scenes? What if we didn’t need to control Washington DC? What if we didn’t need our photo taken with a poor child in Haiti? What if our art isn’t in a gallery? What if our team doesn’t win? What if we didn’t need to have a top ten CCM song on the radio? What if our ultra cool discipleship program idea isn’t funded? What if nobody reads our blog? What if we could speak the prophetic word of g-d and let the chips fall where they may – even if we are disliked by some in our own church? (I am thinking of my recent rift with those who didn’t like me questioning America’s militarism, default to violence and hegemonic power – because those in power always – I mean always – maintain position of privilege – even Christians.) What if every time we we are ignored it drives us to the feet of Jesus? What if our job was to make sure everyone else is acknowledged? How would you accomplish this? For now, for me it is to say very little. With younger emerging leaders however, it is necessary to applaud them. We must embrace the great humiliation. Fr. Richard Rohr said we should pray for one humiliation each day.
I believe there are millions of quiet unknown saints living quiet selfless lives serving the world – a world that may very well hate Christians (and I think the some of the western world hates Christians mostly because they’ve sought out power and position). But what if – what if we are simply ignored and absolutely unknown? What if nobody ever thanks us, gives us an award, acknowledges us in their book, or declares that we changed their life? May we pass the test of John and pursue smallnicity.